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Abandoning the concept of renewable energy



image: undp.org


We return to the idea of sustainability, this time with an intriguing critical paper  Harjanne, A. & Korhonen, J. M. (2019). Abandoning the concept of renewable energy. Energy Policy 127, 330-340.
you can find it here https://osf.io/preprints/socarxiv/hdb2g/

Regardless the somewhat misleading title, this work does not suggest quitting the search for ways of making and developing societies that do not cause perpetual and irreversible harm to our environment. Rather it is an intriguing and curious examination of the language used to discuss different types of energy, their positive attributes and negative consequences, within the realm of energy policy. The basic premise of this paper is that renewability does not equate to sustainability, that the different energy sources and production systems are each unique and pose therefore distinct environmental, social, economic challenges. The authors suggest that the rhetorical entanglement of various forms have led to misguided energy policies that are open to abuse, and that furthermore, "the whole idea of renewable energy is misleading." 
 
The paper is largely derived from discourse analysis, and aims in the beginning to describe how framing aids in the construction of meaning,  and how framing and language has shaped the conceptual challenge in climate change debate. Energy policy is presented as a paradox, "Continued large-scale exploitation of fossil fuels creates grave risks for human civilization, yet sustaining and extending a prosperous civilization requires a certain level of energy supply."

The authors contend that one major problem is in the conceptual framing of energy sources as either renewable or non-renewable, and the authors frame the problem themselves in the language used to describe it. They refer to the philosopher Wittgenstein's concept that the limits of language defines the limits of a person's world, or at least what they can imagine as their world.

The concept of renewable is introduced as emerging in energy policy debate in the early 1900's, renewable as opposed to inexhaustible energy sources. Yet the activist rhetoric of 70's environmental movements were more responsible for framing good and bad energy (small scale , environmentally friendly energy vs large scale, hegemony-driven big energy). In the subsequent decades of environmental discourse the division has become somewhat more nuanced. “Good” is solar, wind, tidal, geothermal, biomass, and hesitatingly, hydropower), “tolerable”  is small scale use of fossil fuels and peat, and “bad” is large-scale, centralized power plants, big oil and of course nuclear power. General consensus across the energy policy spectrum holds wind, solar, hydro and tidal power, geothermal energy, biofuels and the renewable part of waste as renewable energy. 

At issue is that the concept of sustainability, and the concept of renewable energy are frequently associated with eachother. Lets remember that sustainability includes social, environmental and economic domains. The authors contend that no energy form is  without some societal and environmental impact, and they search for a broader frame, "Sustainable energy enables societal development that is largely, even if not entirely, decoupled from increasing environmental degradation for the foreseeable future."

The article we find is well researched and the content presented straightforward. It outlines a number of problems with the concept of renewable energy, most clearly illustrated in the instance of biomass fuel. (i) Biofuel does indeed is produced from  renewable materials, but large scale production can threaten biodiversity because of the amount of land and water required to grow those materials. Burning biofuels also causes considerable carbon emissions in the short term, and particulate air pollution that has negative impact on human health and climate. Biomass culture also competes with food production, resulting in the conversion of agricultural land, potentially threatening increased food prices. Intensive agriculture required to run biofuel systems on a large scale also risk soil degradation and groundwater pollution. The article points out that although public-facing policy and industry communication (propaganda) promotes Wind and Solar energy as the face of renewable energy, many major plans for greening of the energy sectors, such as Norway's attempt to give up coal, and urban energy plans for Copenhagen and Stockholm, rely on biofuel and its myriad associated problems.

(ii) Hydropower is likewise analysed for its hidden negative impacts on fish and  relating freshwater hydrology, and the release of large quantities of greenhouse gases as the original biomass under reservoirs decays. Hydropower projects often require displacement of local populations and challenge societal sustainability, particularly when "negative consequences are faced by poor, indigenous populations while economic benefits are reaped elsewhere." Geothermal is presented in somewhat better light, with relatively minor negative impacts impacts other than local pollution and the potential of increasing earthquakes. However as geothermal energy is actually practiced, it does not necessarily fit the definition of renewable, as an energy source that is able to replenish itself. 

(iii) The sustainability challenges of wind and solar power are also examined. Their low energy density and intermittent nature result in higher material and land requirements, and in fact these technologies are dependent on rare earth minerals and raw materials that are themselves, not renewable nor sustainably produced. 

From a societal sustainability  perspective, wind and solar appear to be quite progressive, in that they can be more distributed in nature and enable local production, therefore community benefit from energy provision. However, the case of Germany suggests that these positive potentials are not universal, as the main beneficiaries of these energy sources in Germany have been more affluent populations, and those with more disposable income and therefore, investment opportunities to own and operate such decentralised power production.

It is this extended and insightful discussion of the paper we find most relevant, but as often in such academic discourse, the detail is, well, in the framing. The author's conclusions, while perhaps well grounded in discourse analysis, seem insufficient and ineffectually expressed as a kind of linguistic activism. They argue that "In the context of energy policy, the loose 1970s-era definition of “renewable energy” and its positive associations have permitted politicians and lobbyists to get away with what are essentially bait-and-switch schemes that seem to address climate change, but in reality serve only to improve public image or promote selected technologies or interest groups and may hinder emission reductions or even increase them and cause other undesirable environmental impacts." 

How to address this? They suggest to change the framing, again the language, the terminology.
But how to talk about these issues? The term sustainable energy has already been coopted to describe selected types of renewable energy, or discuss energy efficiency, and Siemens uses sustainable energy to suggest an energy supply combining renewable and conventional energy. WWS, or Wind, Water and Solar is a term also related as good or green, but do not adequately describe a complete energy policy. Scenarios for global energy production exclusively utilising WWS are unlikely to produce enough energy to effect equitable and sustainable economic development. Social concepts are often associated to a value (good, bad, preferable), perhaps it is the concepts of renewable energy that need to be re-discuss according new shared values.

Clean energy is proposed as another misnomer, as every energy source has some negative, or dirty impact regardless of their measured carbon emissions, and clean energy includes pretty much all energy sources other than fossil fuels. Clean is also used most troublingly to describe natural gas, which is cleaner than coal, but remains a major contributor to global warming-related pollution, and of course clean is now being used to describe coal. Clean coal is really a contradiction, and an example of industry lobbyists coopting the rhetoric of environmentalism to perpetuate unsustainable, non-renewable energy practices. Another term the authors provide is low-carbon, but it opens up the debate again, about biomass, which could be carbon neutral over the long term, but  isn't technically low-carbon, as it is also combustion energy. Also, nuclear energy is low-carbon energy, as it has very low CO2 emissions, yet due to the contentious debate surrounding good and bad energy, and regardless that it is included in many rational assessments of energy policy towards climate change mitigation, nuclear is hardly in the public opinion a good, clean, green, renewable energy.

In conclusion the paper only suggests that because the concept of renewable energy can be misleading, it serves as an incoherent, even questionable frame upon which to base development and energy policy. Again Wittgenstein, am I limiting my world, because of my limited language? Perhaps it is a solution, to radically change the nature of the debate. Yet, the authors acknowledge early on, other frames that reference progressive change, such as corporate social responsibility or sustainability, do not have such an established and accepted meaning across all stakeholders in the debate. We wonder, if we at least have this one concept we can agree on, changing it out for another term would be unproductive. Extending the debate towards carbon content, whether an energy uses combustion or not may indeed be useful. But talking renewable energy at least, has us thinking about long term life cycles, and the potential damage our energy use and policies have on future generations. If only the debate on climate change and emissions were so clean cut.

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3 Comments

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Q

February 01, 2019 at 17:49

I agree with the authors of the paper that sustainable energy is a label encompassing a broader spectrum of issues, bringing us to think to more variables (which are relevant) and adopting an "ensemble vision". If cultural change is needed to address with some efficacy environmental issues and energy policies, then language is a way to foster such a change. Sure, we already have a label which seems to gather more consensus (renewable), and the process to create common understanding and hence consensus on another label is not easy nor short, but it would not be the first time we go through that. From mid Seventies to mid Nineties, in Italy, the debate was intense about rape (and more generally violence against women) to be labelled as crime against sexual freedom or crime against the person. I am very happy the debate took place and the latter label entered civic society and common sense culture -- that is, entered the world into which I'm living.

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agonist72

February 04, 2019 at 12:49

that's interesting, Q! in fact that's what we find most important in this article, challenging how we talk about things, as the information on the positives and negatives of so-called renewable energy is available in much greater detail elsewhere. on your comment about changing the language to discuss violence against women, it would be interesting to have some data from the time-frame mid 70's to mid-90's to compare, because the 2018 COMMISSIONE D'INCHIESTA SUL FEMMINICIDIO ELA VIOLENZA DI GENERE is pretty dismal reading. It opens the question, has changing the language of discourse actually led to changes in behaviour or social norms? perhaps that issue is something we can introduce in the commonfare gender in IT group https://www.senato.it/application/xmanager/projects/leg18/English_Focus_Femicide_1.pdf

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Q

February 19, 2019 at 10:12

I am working (reading/writing) on the issue right now, I'll share something as soon as ready